In considering FEMA's disgustingly inept performance in dealing with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, it's worth comparing its performance with previous natural catastrophes. Earlier this evening Meteor Blades mentioned this article from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and it jogged my memory about a post I wrote last March about FEMA disbursing tens of millions of dollars to unconfirmed applications for federal assistance in the aftermath of the multiple hurricanes that swept through the crucial election state of Florida prior to the 2004 election:
There's been a bit of coverage of this issue over the last few days, but everything I've seen has taken the standard "government waste and ineptness" angle. But nobody, to my knowledge, has questioned whether there was a deliberate policy of loose disbursement of funds to residents of one of the two most crucial state being defended by the Republicans on behalf of George W. Bush. I doubt many people would decide to vote for Bush becuase they discovered it was easy to defraud FEMA. But flinging money around in excess of what was required certainly would have helped prime the pumps of the Florida economy, and help keep voters from getting dissatisfied with the conditions of the state governed by the President's brother and required for the election of the President.
FEMA has generally been thought to be a relatively well-run agency. Hopefully some enterprising journalists well-acquainted with DC bureaucracies will poke around at FEMA and see if there's any reason to believe that FEMA's response to the Florida hurricanes was politicized, becuase there's certainly good reason to suspect that it was.
Obviously my statement about FEMA being a well-run agency was out of date, and didn't account for the horrible decline in it's performance since the Clinton administration. And after I wrote that piece on March 19, I didn't catch that South Florida Sun-Sentinel article that came out on March 23:
As the second hurricane in less than a month bore down on Florida last fall, a federal consultant predicted a "huge mess" that could reflect poorly on President Bush and suggested that his re-election staff be brought in to minimize any political liability, records show.
Two weeks later, a Florida official summarizing the hurricane response wrote that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was handing out housing assistance "to everyone who needs it without asking for much information of any kind."
The records are contained in hundreds of pages of Gov. Jeb Bush's storm-related e-mails initially requested by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel Oct. 13...
Democrats in Washington said the records confirm suspicions that the federal government used the hurricanes to funnel money to Florida, a key battleground state in the presidential election. "They weren't really asking for information, yet they were just doling out this money like it was Christmas," said Lale Mamaux, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton.
"It's not surprising to learn that [Republicans] played politics with the hurricanes that tragically affected hundreds of thousands of Floridians last year," said Josh Earnest, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
FEMA officials, the governor and the White House have steadfastly denied suggestions that politics played a role in the distribution of hurricane aid in Florida.
"The men and women at FEMA don't give a patooey about who the president is or who the governor is," FEMA Director Michael D. Brown told the newspaper's editorial board in October. "Whenever people say stuff like that … we're just offended by that because that's just not how we operate."
After the last few days, it's not even clear that under Mr. Brown FEMA operates at all. But in the months before the 2004 election, indications are that FEMA was certainly very attentive to the political needs of George W. Bush:
But politics was foremost on the mind of FEMA consultant Glenn Garcelon, who wrote a three-page memo titled "Hurricane Frances -- Thoughts and Suggestions," on Sept. 2.
The Republican National Convention was winding down, and President Bush had only a slight lead in the polls against Democrat John Kerry. Winning Florida was key to the president's re-election. FEMA should pay careful attention to how it is portrayed by the public, Garcelon wrote in the memo, conveying "the team effort theme at every opportunity" alongside state and local officials, the insurance and construction industries, and relief agencies such as the Red Cross.
"What FEMA cannot afford to do is back itself into a corner by feeling it has to be the sole explainer and defender for everything that goes wrong," he wrote. "Further, this is not what the President would want. Plenty is going to go wrong, and his Department of Homeland Security does not want to assume responsibility for all of it."
Garcelon, a former FEMA employee, recommended that "top-level people from FEMA and the White House need to develop a communication strategy and an agreed-upon set of themes and communications objectives."
"Communication consultants from the President's re-election campaign should be brought in," he wrote. "Above all, everybody's got to understand that no amount of flogging DHS/ FEMA will insure that the recovery will go perfectly. This is going to be a huge mess. The public needs to be prepared for it."
FEMA officials claimed that Garcelon wrote the memo on his own without prompting, and didn't act on his recommendations. But the evidence, especially compared with the non-response to Katrina, suggests otherwise:
Garcelon, in his memo, cautioned that processing applications for assistance after Frances in case of a catastrophic housing need could be overwhelming for FEMA, which was still dealing with the ramifications of Hurricane Charley.
"A logical and defensible means for establishing blanket eligibility must be developed," he wrote, suggesting that FEMA rely on aerial photographs and computerized mapping in deciding where to deliver aid.
"Cannot allow an inspection backlog to develop," he wrote of the process of examining each home for damage. "Everything points in that direction unless we get creative here."
FEMA acknowledged that in Miami-Dade County and in other areas of the state, however, the agency took the rare step, given the magnitude of the disaster, of awarding $726 in "expedited" housing assistance to people who asked for it, without immediately sending inspectors to verify damage.
In a Sept. 13 memo to Gov. Bush and other top state officials, Orlando J. Cabrera, executive director of the Florida Housing Finance Corp. and a member of the governor's Hurricane Housing Work Group, wrote after a meeting with FEMA that the agency was allocating short-term rental assistance to "everyone who needs it, without asking for much information of any kind."
Other so-called "standard housing assistance," of up to $25,600, he wrote, is "liberally provided without significant scrutiny of the request made during the initial months; scrutiny increases remarkably and the package is far more stringent after an unspecified time."
Even state officials were surprised at how quickly money flowed to Florida.
The day after Hurricane Charley hit the west coast, the state's labor chief, Susan Pareigis, asked for a federal grant for unemployment assistance for storm victims.
Four days later, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao "was down personally" to award the money, Pareigis wrote in an Aug. 24 e-mail to the governor. "Please express our sincere thank you for such an instantaneous response."
The governor forwarded her e-mail to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in less than 10 minutes.
"Please tell the President and your team how grateful we are," Gov. Bush wrote. "The response has been awesome from FEMA and other departments."
I doubt Kathleen Blanco will be sending a similar message to the President.
It needs to be pointed out that there is no comparison between the challenges presented by the Florida hurricanes in 2004 and the utter devastation and collapse of much of an entire region's physical and social infrastructure as happened with Katrina. In Florida, the logistical and physical demands were just a fraction of the challenge that faces the central Gulf Coast. But there is undeniably a huge difference in the urgency of the response.
What could explain the difference between the response to the Florida hurricanes and Katrina? Many are suggesting that it's the race of so many of the victims in New Orleans. I don't doubt that the "foreigness" of the suffering endured by people of color has something to do with the failure of George W. Bush to respond sooner and more resolutely to Katrina. But I think the key difference is that this is a symptom of what just about everyone has said about almost every facet of the Bush administation: the primacy of politics over policy and the good of the country. If Katrina had hit last September, I have no doubt George W. Bush and President Dick Cheney (who's apparently at another undisclosed location the last few days) would have mobilized every available resource--or at least ensured they could appear to be mobilizing every available resource--to rescue the endangered, alleviate suffering and start the momentous task of rebuilding the region and providing the means for people to rebuild their lives.
But there are no more elections for George W. Bush. He got what he needed from the people of Louisiana and Mississippi. He doesn't need them any more. And apparently the question of whether they need him and the governement over which he presides, when there's no election at stake, is not one that appears to attract much of his attention.